PARIS, Nov 13 – The prospect of a World Cup without Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry will move a step closer if Portugal and France come unstuck in the first leg of their World Cup play-offs on Saturday.Having failed to secure automatic qualification for the South Africa showpiece, Portugal must overcome Bosnia-Herzegovina while France face a stern test against Giovanni Trapattoni’s rejuvenated Republic of Ireland.
Both France and Portugal, who lost to the French in the 2006 semi-finals, have been hampered by injury, with Les Bleus deprived of the services of Franck Ribery and Portugal missing talismanic captain Ronaldo.
France coach Raymond Domenech, apparently immune to the welter of public criticism which has rained down on him for much of his tenure, insists the French will go through.
"I know my men are ready," said Domenech, whose side face Ireland in Dublin on Saturday prior to the return leg in Paris next Wednesday.
"Any pressure is internal. If the players don’t feel it inside then there’s something wrong and they have no place here."
Yet even as Domenech seeks to throw a protective arm around his squad he himself has been squarely in the firing line, coming in for criticism from the Irish and his own countrymen alike.
Ireland defender Richard Dunne, whose side went unbeaten in qualifying only to be pipped to automatic qualification from Group Eight by reigning champions Italy, insists that with the likes of Henry and Nicolas Anelka on board, France should already be through.
"Every time a tournament comes round, France have all these world-class players and then a man who seems intent on messing them up," Dunne told The Guardian newspaper.
"And we know that if we can get in front, they probably have not got the man at the top to pull them back around."
Domenech took time out to attend the Paris Masters tennis tournament this week and was promptly booed by fans when cameras picked him out in the crowd.
And L’Equipe sports daily picked up on criticism by depicting the Irish team lined up behind Domenech beneath the headline, ‘Their luck is him!’
Former Irish star Liam Brady, now an assistant to Trapattoni, says the men in green fear nobody.
"The pressure is on them more so than us, but we are both playing for a place in the World Cup finals, so it’s enormous," he said.
"But if we were to carry a lead to Paris, the pressure would pile on them."
French forward Sidney Govou shrugged off the mind games regarding Domenech.
"They (the critics) just want to put the pressure on – but it’s not him who’ll be out there on the pitch."
For Portugal’s Deco, meanwhile, the loss of Ronaldo must not be allowed to weigh too heavily on Carlos Queiroz’s side.
"We have enough quality to plug the gap – we can’t use his absence as an excuse. We know it won’t be easy but we are confident," the Chelsea midfielder insisted.
As France and Portugal seek redemption in the form of tickets to South Africa, 2004 European champions Greece also face a fight as they go up against Ukraine, who edged Croatia out of the runners-up spot in England’s group.
The inconsistent Greeks lost out in their group to Switzerland and have the perceived disadvantage of playing the second leg away.
Guus Hiddink’s Russia, who were unable to overhaul Germany in their group, host Slovenia.
"We should never underestimate Slovenia on any account," Hiddink warned his Euro 2008 semi-finalists.
Outside Europe, New Zealand, who appeared in the 1982 finals, take on would-be debutants Bahrain in Wellington following a goalless draw in Manama in the opening leg, while Costa Rica meet Uruguay in San Jose on Sunday.